The Pretenders, U2, and the Boss meet Garbage (or why the short story collection rules)

I’m thinking about short stories today, specifically individual stories, collections, and magazines. And I’m thinking about their relationships to music—or at least to the way music is absorbed today vs. how it was absorbed when I was a kid. I’m thinking about this because for the past few weeks I’ve really gotten into listening to albums while I work.

Not music.


Today, for example, I queued up Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders debut The Pretenders, and U2s debut Boy, and then Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

This actually started back a little while ago when I tweeted that:

I got a little flack from Lisa about this because Garbage is on the routine playlist at Radio Paradise, which is a service we listen to a lot. But when I said I had found Garbage, I didn’t mean they were new ideas to me. I knew who garbage was, and I was quite familiar with Shirley Manson before she had her terminator gig, thank you very much.

What I meant, however, was that I was actually paying a lot of attention to them now—and what that means to me was that I was listening to their full albums, that I was digging on their sound and starting to understand the thing that they really are. Whatever that is.

The album, it turns out, is a forum of music that is important to me. As I think about it in truth I don’t think I really consume music on the basis of individual songs. Not really. I mean, of course I listen to stuff on the radio, and I can dig a good one-time groove as well as the next guy. But I don’t know if I really register a piece of music until I hear in context of everything else the musicians do.

The radio is basically noise you put on in the background.

Albums are music. Albums are the way a band speaks to their audience. Song placement, riff structure, the way pieces sound as they come together. The feeling of an album can be visceral. There are pieces today, individual songs, that don’t sound right when they aren’t followed by the right companion (as I write this, RP is playing the Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues,” and I’ll feel weird when it’s not followed up by “Factory Girl” … but that’s no hangin’ matter, I guess).

…but I digress.

Maybe this says that the group matters to me, or to be more specific, the artist. Maybe I mean the artist cannot be separate from the art.

Or maybe I’ve just come to this weirdness because when I was a kid the primary form I wanted to hear music in was an album side. You get it, right? The album side? The Stones Love You Live, side three. Lou Reed’s Rock & Roll Animal, side one. The Who Who’s Next … you get the idea. You put an album side on and you let it play. Eighteen minutes or so later, you flipped it—or, if you had a cool auto-play function on your kick-ass set, another side of another album could fall without you touching it.


An album meant something. It had a place, a time, and a story. The best ones, the ones that mattered the most, had a purpose. A statement. A reason for being here, and a reason for being made together. Sometimes they were meta-statements on the band itself (Fleetwood Mac, anyone?). Sometimes they were commentary on a piece of politics (CSNY?), or a place and time (Surrealistic Pillow?).

I was thinking about that today when I was listening to the Pretenders—a band that took me awhile to warm to because at first all I heard was “Brass in Pocket,” which was okay, but a bit eh. I forgot, however, how remarkable that whole debut album was when it just played. It’s a glorious work made by people with an interesting take on the world. It’s got a few singles on it, a few pieces that are good on their own, and that a lot of people will nod and say “hey, the Pretenders,” when they come on. But they are not the Pretenders to me. The Pretenders come alive when you hear the whole thing.

But, as I said above, what I want to talk about today is short fiction, collections, and magazines.

It’s like this. I love short fiction. I do. In my perfect world, there would be almost no long fiction. It’s hard for me to put in the hours and hours it takes to read novels, and to be honest, I personally just love the art form of the short story. A well-done short story is like a hit of wonder drug to me. It makes me think. A remarkable short story—just like a remarkable song—can make me step back and change how I feel inside.

And, I like magazines. I do.

But to be truthful, they feel like mix-tapes.

I pick ’em up and I read them, and then I’m done. I never pick up a magazine and read it again. Oh, sure, on rare occasions I’ll be looking for a specific story from the past, and go hunting for a magazine, and then I’ll read that specific story. But I can’t ever remember picking up a magazine and re-reading it. Doesn’t happen … and that’s why I think their comparison in music is the mix-tape, only in this case, the mix-tape is curated by an editor. Maybe that makes it a playlist in today’s world. You’re reading an editor’s playlist.

Don’t get me wrong. I like reading these playlists, just like I liked making mix-tapes.

But, while I’ve made a bunch of mix-tapes in my life, I don’t know that I listened to them very many times. So, Magazines are mix-tapes. And maybe that means that review magazines and whatnot are the closest thing to “radio,” the short fiction world has. Radio being one of the ways you heard of something you might want to look at more closely.

So, yeah. Magazine = mix-tape.

Collections, though, are albums.

I made that connection today. Collections, when done well, have a purpose, they have an essence as a whole that is built off the interaction of the individuals. And, sure, I know a lot of people don’t read collections straight through (I don’t sometimes). But even then, they still speak together of the artist.

Unlike magazines, there are collections that I’ll pick up and read over and over again. Often.

I mean, works like Karen Joy Fowler’s Black Glass, Harlan Ellison’s Death Bird Stories, and Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things to identify three you’ve maybe heard of. Amy Casil’s Without Absolution, and Lisa Silverthorne’s The Sound of Angels to name a couple you may not be as familiar with.

A collection tells you something about the writer that a story doesn’t. A story can be misleading, after all. It can be fickle. A story can lie about the author, because a story is filled with characters who work on their own agendas, and a story has a message of its own that is certainly coming from inside the writer but that one can’t tell exactly how invested the writer might be in that thing he or she has created. Stories are strange.

But a collection has a tone. If it’s well created, it has a flavor. A collection helps the reader see what parts of one story or another come from places inside the author, and which parts might be the characters speaking through that authorial veil. A collection is that writer speaking directly to his or her audience.

In a just world, the short story collection would be something people would hold up for inspection. In a just world, there would be a Hugo for such a thing (and it would not be bastardized or attacked or whatever is going on with the others today). In a just world, the collection would sell well.

Of course, in a just world, musicians and bands would still be primarily known for the album.

At least in my just world, anyway. [grin]

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